Marketing the market: facilitating EBT usage among farmers’ market customers

Project Overview

CNE09-065
Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2009: $9,792.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Liz Kenton
UVM Extension
Co-Leaders:
Sarah Kleinman
University of Vermont Extension

Commodities

  • Fruits: melons
  • Vegetables: beans, beets, broccoli, cabbages, carrots, cauliflower, cucurbits, eggplant, garlic, greens (leafy), leeks, onions, peas (culinary), peppers, radishes (culinary), sweet corn, tomatoes, brussel sprouts
  • Additional Plants: herbs, ornamentals

Practices

  • Crop Production: crop rotation, cover crops, organic fertilizers
  • Education and Training: demonstration, display, extension, farmer to farmer, mentoring, networking, participatory research, youth education
  • Farm Business Management: marketing management
  • Pest Management: cultural control, physical control, mulching - plastic, prevention, row covers (for pests)
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Soil Management: soil analysis, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: community planning, ethnic differences/cultural and demographic change, leadership development, local and regional food systems, partnerships, public participation, community services, social networks

    Proposal abstract:

    Farming is an active sector of the economy in Windham County, Vermont. Over 50 member vendors participate in the local farmers’ market in Brattleboro and the town hosts a thriving downtown food co-op, but many potential customers neglect local organic produce. To address this issue, the market has recently acquired a wireless card reader to accept both food stamps via Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT), and debit purchases. However, food stamp recipients are more accustomed to using these benefits for pre-packaged goods at chain groceries, and management of EBT is still evolving into a straightforward process for the market and its customers. Local residents with limited financial resources miss out on fresh, raw vegetables for a variety of reasons, but the main barrier is an assumption that produce is too expensive. At the same time, local food shelves and hunger relief services report that increasing numbers of people are coming in for handouts. This food is donated through gleaning projects and by annual donation drives which specifically request durable canned goods, among other items. While canned food may keep bellies full, its nutritional content, its cost efficiency and the impact of its transport can be poor in comparison with that of food grown a few miles away and picked only a few hours or days before. Fresh, local food can also make more economic sense. People who think they can’t afford organic food are sometimes thinking of an eight-dollar deli sandwich, and are unaware that they could secure enough carrots, potatoes, onions, and greens for a week’s meals at the market for not much more than that. Those who do know about EBT at the market often do not know how to prepare food from scratch. A local nutrition educator working with the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger reports that due to lack of access, cooking experience, and familiarity with how food grows, some of the families with whom she works say that they “just don’t like vegetables.” Staff at the Brattleboro Drop-In Center, who distribute tons of donated food, say that some of their hungriest clients simply ignore vegetables. All this adds up to weaken the position of sustainable agriculture as it affects community economic development: farmers are not honored and supported as crucial food producers, food stamp funding continues to support long-distance food transport and commodity agriculture, and the community remains stratified into richer and poorer consumers of, respectively, organic and “conventional” food. When youth, in particular, are undernourished and uninvolved, they are less likely to join their community as productive adults. Too many people in Brattleboro and Windham County lack access to, and usable knowledge of, healthy food. As noted in the final report of a previously funded project of YHP: “The „Bridging the Gap? program attempted to reach out and educate community members on buying local and cooking with fresh vegetables. It would benefit both farmers and community members to increase the scope of this education and outreach.” As an outcome of this project, we realized the enormous potential that EBT held for reaching out to these customers. It is our hope that “marketing the market” will answer this need.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The mission of the project is to increase consumption of fresh local food among food stamp users in Brattleboro and Windham County. We will focus on three connected audiences: food stamp beneficiaries, debit customers, and youth. We plan to accomplish this by improving outreach around fresh local produce and EBT use, by operating the wireless card reader at market, and by producing an EBT manual for the Brattleboro Area Farmers’ Market. Existing marketing materials are available from the USDA and other agencies but lack local details, so we intend to adapt these and to develop additional outreach materials as needed, with up-to-date, local information about, for instance, farmstands, CSA’s, food shelves, and nutrition/cooking classes. Each of these local food resources is offered by at least one of YHP’s partners in
    Brattleboro who have expressed support for this project, and we will draw on their expertise to be inclusive and accurate.

    The proposed project will directly benefit the farmers’ market, which for many farmers is their most public presence. Having YHP take on operation of EBT at market will lighten the market manager’s load, and we plan to produce a manual which incorporates the feedback of farmers, customers, and other stakeholders. The project will not only help the market facilitate access to fresh local food for everyone in the community, but improve vendors’ and customers’ market experience. The use of debit cards currently covers monthly fees for the card reader through a transaction surcharge; part of the requested funds will support matching funds for EBT purchases. Improved outreach materials will be made available throughout the community at market, at sites and events where potential EBT and debit customers live and gather, and through the existing Farm-to-School Healthy Snacks program.

    Uniquely, a large percentage of the planning, face-to-face outreach and hands-on design will be carried out by the teens employed in YHP’s Summer Work and Learn job-training program. Over the past seven years, the Youth Horticulture Project has helped to connect community members of all ages with the sources of their food. Schoolchildren visit our 1-acre farm for agriculture-based lessons or summer mentoring, summer youth employees learn to judge which tools will work best for their fieldwork task list, and adults taste one of our demonstration dishes at the co-op, or receive a farmshare bag, and decide to try a new vegetable-based recipe. SWL alumni also grasp the viability of agriculture as a career, having observed or practiced farming, market management, outreach, food education, and policy advocacy in the program. We have partnered with local farmers, educators, service providers, and institutions, and will be able to draw on those relationships to most effectively deliver the message that healthy food is available and accessible.

    The proposed project will make it possible for more customers to find, choose, and purchase produce, whether through outlets like the Food Co-op or directly from growers. YHP will join a broad spectrum of organizations in Vermont and the region currently working to nourish the relationships both between consumer and farmer, and between consumers and their food. Many farmers’ markets are starting to grapple with the inclusion of an EBT machine at the market. This project will not only help formalize the use of the machine at the Brattleboro market but also serve as a model to other farmers’ markets attempting to add EBT to their market structure.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.